A sheriff's department in Texas recorded what should have been private phone calls between lawyers and inmates, and provided prosecutors with copies of the conversations, a federal lawsuit alleges.
Such a breach would violate the attorney-client legal privilege and may have hindered the ability of lawyers to defend their clients in court.
"They have a basic duty to maintain the structure of the legal system," lawyer Brian McGiverin said, referring to the Travis County sheriff's office and prosecutors. "Confidentiality of conversations with an attorney is simply one of the most fundamental rights we have."
The scope of the alleged spying is unknown and is believed to be ongoing, according to McGiverin. Lawyers in Austin began learning of the monitoring in Travis County's two jails, operated by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, within the past year.
The recordings sometimes came to light during the discovery phase of trials, when the prosecution must share all relevant materials with the defense. The lawsuit accuses other prosecutors of secretly using the recordings to "their tactical advantage without admitting they obtained or listened to the recordings."
The plaintiffs are four criminal defense attorneys in Travis County, the Austin Lawyers Guild and the Prison Justice League, which advocates for better conditions in Texas prisons.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Austin, says the eavesdropping violates federal and state wiretap laws as well as the right to effective counsel and the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches.
"We don't respond to lawsuits," said sheriff's spokesman Roger Wade. "We don't make statements."
Calls between lawyers and attorneys "are free of charge and are not recorded," according to the sheriff's website.
Wade referred The Huffington Post to Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who will defend the sheriff's office. Escamilla didn't return calls for comment.
The Travis County district attorney's office, which the lawsuit says received copies of the recorded calls, didn't respond to HuffPost's inquiries.
Securus Technologies, which manages phone systems in jails and is named as a co-defendant in the suit, didn't respond to messages from HuffPost.
Hundreds of inmates and lawyers were recorded, according to the lawsuit, although the exact number is unknown.
The surreptitious program makes it tougher to mount a strong defense as lawyers and people accused of crimes become uncomfortable talking openly on the phone.
"The fact that there's a threat means there's a chilling effect," McGiverin said.
The lawsuit seeks the immediate dismantling of the recording program.